If you book tickets for Jock of the Bushveld, bag yourself seats near the front.
You need to be close to admire the splendid costumes, enjoy the full impact of the stage set, and most of all to be charmed by the facial expressions as the cast brings an array of animals to life.
Take kids too, because this is a real family musical that hasn’t got quite sufficient emotional oomph to convince an adult-only audience.
The classic story of the dog with the heart of a lion written by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick has taken two years to be adapted into a musical. And you can see why – this is a big show where everything looks fabulous.
The opening few minutes are reminiscent of The Lion King as all the animals gather to set the scene. If you’ve seen that absolutely brilliant show, you’ll fear this isn’t going compare. And it can’t, really, yet comparisons soon fade once the characters stamp their own mark on the show.
Deon Opperman and Sean Else have reworked the novel into script that’s packed with their original songs, with music by Johan Vorster. Opperman also directed the show, and it really is a fine production.
Vaughan Gardiner plays Jock, with his boy-band voice and looks giving the dog the appropriate persona of a little boy with big ambitions.
But for real charisma look out for Matt Stern as the leopard, boasting one of the show’s best and biggest voices that gives a comparatively small role a memorable stature. Also delightful are the trio of vultures who toss us tidbits of humour as they hungrily watch the tale unfold.
There are lovely performances too from Michelle Botha as Chicken and Suzzi Swanepoel as Fifi the vampish poodle. While there are no absolute show-stopping songs or tearjerkers that you catch yourself humming later, the lyrics are clever and sometimes heartwarming.
Wardrobe designer Sarah Roberts has done a superb job, with her poodle, vulture and sunbird outfits particularly captivating. Stan Knight’s set design is also lovely, with revolving rocks, buildings and wagons creating a changing bushveld scene.
Yet in a way these elements seem almost too classy for a story that really isn’t that strong. Dog is born, dog gets saved from potential death by a human benefactor, romps around in the bush for a while, then dies. Oh, that’s spoiled the ending for you, but you probably knew the outcome anyway.
Jock learns a few moral lessons about life along the way – that friends and honesty are more rewarding than self-enrichment – but overall I wanted more story substance to justify the theatrics.
Jock of the Bushveld runs at the Joburg Theatre until September 26. For more of Lesley’s reviews follow the links alongside.